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November 23, 2007


Movie Review: BeowulfAfter wowing audiences with CGI motion capture with The Polar Express, Robert Zemekis set his next spell to be cast over the age-old classic, Beowulf. Obviously, there’s plenty of mystique left in the old tale, even after confusing high school and college English Literature students alike.

Beowulf is one of those stories that we were all forced to read, yet never really understood its grasp. On the one hand, it’s the timeless tale of good versus evil; on the other hand, it’s a philosopher’s nightmare—and darn near impossible to understand. Maybe that’s why after a good half-dozen film adaptations (some good, some awful, and some that are just confusing), no one seems to tell the same story.

Zemekis’ Beowulf, despite its poetic source material, is best viewed as a film of its own merit. Like many film adaptations of classic literature, the filmmakers have taken a number of liberties to fit the story into a two-hour cinematic adventure. This has its own share of strengths and weaknesses.

The decision to tell the story as a motion-capture computer-generated imaging (CGI) animated feature was interesting in its own right. What’s even more eyebrow-raising is that the animators modeled the characters after the likenesses of the actors who voiced them. I’m not sure what the point of this was. It certainly didn’t convince me that 3D animation has achieved anything anywhere near life-like status.

As a digital artist, I’m well aware of the time and effort that goes into even getting a person’s likeness. I’m also keen on the reality that capturing a person’s essence is just as important. Alas, the artists of Beowulf have done a far better job of the former than the latter. It’s a pity, really. There’s more life in the characters of Cars than Beowulf ever imagined. This is probably the film’s greatest weakness. A story like this is a story of the human element, the primary element that is lacking in this film. The subtleties of even a twinkle of the eye are lost in CGI, which is a lesson that Zemekis and company seriously needs to learn.

CGI does have several benefits; the most important of which is that there are no limits at what can be constructed. Entire worlds can be recreated with just the stroke of a mouse or stylus. Gone are the budgetary constraints of location shooting and expensive construction. Buildings can be built, destroyed, aged, and burned or exploded without ever pounding the first nail.

Further, camera angles can be as extreme or as simple as one could imagine. In fact, the only real limit in CGI is the imagination and skill of the directors and artists who work under them. Zemekis’ skill as a director has long been established, and his ability to work with visual effects was settled as far back as the toon-life film, Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Animating dragons and humans is far different than quirky rabbits and sexy toongirls, though. The visual appetite that modern filmgoers have for a vicious dragon is practically insatiable after the previous successes of Dragonheart and the beasts from The Lord of the Rings films. The golden brute of a dragon seen in Beowulf is clearly on par with them; and it gives the film a much-needed dose of excitement.

Beowulf has an army of vocal and acting talent which ranges from the mentally tortured King Rhothgar (Anthony Hopkins), to the sultry, evil, and sexy witch played by Angelina Jolie. The king’s aide, Unferth (John Malkovitch) is a pivotal character that helps to drive the plot (and swords) from one battle to the next. Even these powerhouse actors manage to not overshadow the heroic Beowulf, as portrayed by Ray Winstone.

Beowulf’s fateful battle with Grendel was shown with all the bravado one might expect, and the fact that he fought the battle in the nude was as much a distraction to the audience as it was to the animators. After all, there was as much effort to hide the hero’s penis as there was to actually plot the battle. Since Zemekis knew that his audience wasn’t interested in seeing the loins of their hero, he obviously wanted to make sure it didn’t happen. What results is an almost comical display of hide-the-sausage that even surpasses the nude skateboard romp from this summer’s The Simpsons. The only thing lacking was Nelson Muntz jumping out of the shadows and pointing at Beowulf’s wee-wee with his famous “ha-ha!” cackle.

On the flip side, one of the most inspired casting moves was to have Back to the Future’s Crispin Glover fill the role of hideously deformed Grendel, who will easily be join the ranks of the top movie monsters in history. He ripped, tore, and hurled with such grandiose violence and brute strength that he was indeed a monster that needed to be killed.

Yet even all of this talent can’t add the spark that’s needed for the film to succeed. Sure the characters lips’ have been synced to the voices. Even their movements were captured. It’s too bad that the movie as a whole seemed as shallow as the characters in it.


About the Author

David W. Shelton



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